Yamilee Toussaint is an MIT Engineering graduate who founded STEM from Dance, a program designed to expose black and Latino middle schools girls to careers in the STEM fields through dance.
Because of the deep connection that music and dance have in the culture of minority communities who use these art forms as a release, to celebrate and to communicate, Toussaint saw the unique opportunity to build community and confidence through dance.
Next week (July 9-20), STEM From Dance is hosting its Girls Rise Up summer dance camp in Brooklyn.
“We’re stoked to work with 50 girls and have them experience hopefully a really transformative two weeks,” says Toussaint in an exclusive statement to AfroTech.
Progam participants will be introduced to software and electrical engineering principles in addition to the choreography they learn, creating a dance routine that brings together the best of both worlds. This summer, the group will also make trips to visit the Spotify offices and the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
Targeting confidence is a major factor of STEM From Dance, and the influence for that focus came from Toussaint’s history as a math teacher.
“I taught high school math, and I found that one of the biggest challenges i faced was persuading my students to try given that they had their preconceived notions about math,” she says, “It was challenging to teach when they were nervous to try, and that helped me to see how much confidence and mindset plays such a huge role in what we’re able to achieve.”
And confidence affects young people outside of the classroom, too.
“I knew that whatever we did with STEM programming had to address confidence in some way, especially given the atmosphere our young people are going to be entering should they pursue a career in STEM,” she says, “They’re going to be in workplaces and college classrooms where they may be one or one of few people of color, and there is an extra amount of confidence that’s needed to persist in an environment like that.”
Through the training in both STEM subjects and dance itself, STEM From Dance prioritizes a message of “You can do this!” to girls of color. And seeing that message resonate is one of the most rewarding parts of the work for Toussaint.
“I think of a student who already was interested in STEM, a student who had participated in a robotics program — and that’s what she thought she was signing up for when joining our program,” Toussaint says, “She was really apprehensive about the dance side of it, and I loved being able to see her at the performance that our program culminates. She was on stage dancing alongside people who have danced for years. I think it speaks to giving students an opportunity to challenge themselves in a space that feels safe, like they can be vulnerable to dance in front of other people for the first time. And I imagine her stepping into a tech workspace and having that thought, like ‘I can do things that I try at and it’s worth the try because once I do it I end up doing pretty well.’ So, I think that’s such an important experience for our young people to have.”
But with great rewards come challenges that Toussaint is always aware of.
“The challenge that is always on my mind is how do we continue and grow the impact that we have on students toward our mission,” she says, “What could happen is that we have these girls who are dancing and making these tech projects that integrate with their dance, but what if they don’t become more interested in the STEM field? We try to always have a pulse on if the things we’re doing are having the intended impact.”
After the summer program next week, STEM From Dance will be getting ready for the new school year, where they plan to partner with 20 schools across New York City. Beyond that, the long-term trajectory is to position themselves as experts in the field of getting more girls interested in STEM through dance and the arts and being able to provide the field with the tools, people and research needed to do the work better.